DeCora and Indian Art
American Folk Music
Natalie Curtis Burlin (1875-1921):
A Pioneer in the Study
of American Minority Cultures
by Alfred R. Bredenberg
| In 1903, a young musician
from New York City set out for the American West on what she
called her "self-appointed task of recording native songs."1 During the next 18 years up to her tragic
death in Paris in 1921, Natalie Curtis (married to artist Paul
Burlin in 1917) would become one of the best-known authorities
of her time on American Indian art and culture.
Her 1907 classic, The Indians' Book,
a groundbreaking popular work, was acclaimed throughout the U.S.
and internationally. The Indians' Book, arguably the most enduring
work on Indian culture, and especially music, is still in print
after more than 80 years. Charles Hamm calls The Indians' Book "...
the most comprehensive collection of Indian songs to appear to that
Curtis went on to carry out important
studies of African-American and African music and culture. She worked
as an advocate of rights and education for Indians and black Americans.
Curtis publicly challenged "the everlasting monopoly of the
white race"3 and promoted a revolutionary
point of view -- recognizing the value of multiple American cultures.
In 1926, Hampton Institute (now Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia)
dedicated a memorial "In Memory of Natalie Curtis -- Beloved
by many of different race and color -- 1875-1921."4
Though Curtis was very productive and
carried out work of enduring impact, little is known about her life.
As a woman with little formal education, she might not have been
viewed as a legitimate scholar in her time. Because of her early
death, she never had the opportunity to pull her works together
and give closure to her career. Then, too, Curtis wasn't one to
seek prominence, but adopted a self-effacing attitude. For example,
in The Indians' Book, she insisted that the book was an offering
of the Indians and that she was only the recorder.
Note: This article originally appeared
in Connecticut Review of Spring 1994.